Survival Tips from the Great Depression

Reading Time: 10 minutes

With America’s Great Recession (2007-2009) still in our memory, and now with pandemic-fueled lockdowns and civil unrest, many folks are left wondering if far worse times lie ahead. Indeed, an astonishing number of websites, TV shows, books, podcasts, and websites (including this one) focused on preparedness and self-sufficiency have surfaced in recent years. From zombies to Alaskan homesteaders, the sites and shows are enduring and proving to be very popular. That wouldn’t be the case without a gnawing feeling on the part of the general public that our country may be headed down a troubling path.

Even if the doomsday people are correct in their (never-ending) claims that the dollar is about to collapse, the government is about to collapse, an EMP or CME is imminent as is a pandemic, it doesn’t mean that times have to be tough for you.

A common misconception is that times in The Great Depression, 80 years ago, were tough for everyone. They weren’t.

One of the audiobooks I’ve enjoyed listening to many times is called Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. In it, author Mildred Armstrong Kalish recounts her childhood fondly as she retells many stories of what it was like to live through hard times. Funny thing though; like many who lived pretty self-sufficient lifestyles, she wasn’t aware that there were hard times. As a New York Times bestselling author, I was thrilled that Kalish took the time to read and endorse my first book, The Accidental Farmers, calling it, “a compellingly delightful read!”

Of course, those who lived in the cities and depended on paychecks fared far worse. And, while a small number of people remained wealthy, being able to provide for oneself made the family much better off since stocks and bonds became worth far less and money was very tight.

I’ve been thinking about those times and what I’ve heard over the years from grandparents and others who endured them. Now, close to a decade after my wife and I left the rat race for a more self-reliant lifestyle, I’m able to clearly see the rules that will allow us to thrive in GOOD times or in BAD times. And here’s a shock if you’re a prepper…guns and ammo isn’t on the list.

These same rules will work for you as well, so here goes.

10 Rules to Thriving During a Severe Economic Downturn

Regardless of whether good times or very bad economic times lie ahead, you’ll get through just fine if you follow these 10 rules NOW as well as later.

1. Be Frugal – During the Great Depression (and prior), being frugal was considered a virtue…something to be proud of. Imagine that! Compare that with the connotation frequently assigned today, when it is suggested by many that one is stingy or cheap. That’s a ridiculous definition and is the result of living in a society where marketers admonish consumers to spend ever more money in an effort to keep up with the (perpetually out of reach) Jones’s.

The path to freedom and wealth is to make the most of what you have and live well below your means. If you have children, show them now how to do the same. Practice budgeting yourself, teach them to do the same and lead by example.

Just to be clear I am not saying to do without modern conveniences. After all, we have iPads and iPhones in our iHouse, but my iPhone has had a severely cracked screen for almost 3 years. I haven’t replaced or repaired it…I just make do. Hell, without my glasses I can’t see it anyway, so I sure didn’t need to upgrade to a (huge) new iPhone 6. And as for the iPad, we have a 1st Generation iPad that still works. When it doesn’t, it has the heft to serve as a solid doorstop.

2. Be Debt Free – In the Great Depression era the motto was no cash, no purchase. Many of us have heard the stories of how our grandparents abhorred debt and refused to use it, other than perhaps for a mortgage. If you have credit cards, pay them off and cut them up.  And who cares what your FICO score is anyway? That’s only a tool so that you can get more credit.

Many of the homesteaders I interviewed in How to Make Money Homesteading reported great success using Dave Ramsey’s methods to pay down the debt they owed. Perhaps that approach can help you as well. Regardless, never borrow money without clearly understanding how you will pay it back.  DEBT IS NOT AN OPTION if you want to live a FREE and SELF-SUFFICIENT life. As long as you have debt, you’ll be a slave to the debt.

3. Seek Simple Pleasures – During the Great Depression children played outside. Stickball, baseball, hopscotch, fishing, jump rope, soapbox derbies, dance contests, building playhouses and forts were the norm. The cost for these pastimes? Zilch.


For adults and rainy days there were cards, board games, puzzles, fishing, discussions about politics or philosophy, playing instruments, telling/sharing stories and simply talking. No, not texting but real honest to goodness talking.

If you’re more of an introvert you can just practice keeping a diary. It will clarify your thoughts and, perhaps, create a family treasure.

One of our favorite pastimes on the farm today is simply taking a pasture walk or a walk through the woods. This could have been as enjoyable a leisure activity 200 years ago as it is today. Of course, we also practice identifying wild edibles, animal tracks, tree and plant species and feel like we’ll never learn as much as we’d like. When we walk with our young daughter, we pretend to see fairies on the plants and come up with other fantasies to pass the time. Just unleash your imagination and teach children to do the same. Better yet, just watch and learn from them. Don’t let television or the latest iDevice think for them and tell them what to play/enjoy.

Of course many of these simple pleasures require you to know your friends and neighbors, which brings me to…

4. Nurture Relationships –  As you’ll learn in the Little Heathens book, the folks who thrived during the Great Depression depended on family and friends, and were able to be depended on themselves. This is a real dilemma in today’s society, where virtually none of us really know our neighbors or have deep friendships. Total self-sufficiency is, of course, a myth, as you’ll always need to rely on someone (doctors, tool/car manufacturers, etc.) and the first persons you should rely on should, ideally, be your neighbors. And you should be there for them as well.

Do you know your neighbors well? What skills do they possess that you need? How can you help them? Do you each have gardens? If so, plan together and grow different crops that you can share.

You want to establish these bonds before times get tough, not when everyone is desperate.

5. Don’t Treat Soil like Dirt – As if the economic impact of the Great Depression wasn’t enough, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s created not only unimaginable human suffering, but also blew away more than 75% of the topsoil in some regions! That’s the rich stuff in the top few inches of the soil where all the organic matter and micronutrients are. You know…the stuff we need to grow food!

A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein

The Dust Bowl occurred as a result of a profound lack of understanding of prairie ecology and followed deep plowing of the plains that was made convenient with new farming technologies. For years the dust blew, the drought persisted and skies were sometimes blackened as far away as New York city.

If you’re a farmer, you can do your part to respect the topsoil and build organic matter. If you’re not a farmer you can still support sustainable farmers as well as growing your own garden, building healthy soil, composting and capturing rain water for your garden.

Respecting the soil and supporting farmers who do is how you can help ensure we have a lasting supply of food. It’s pretty hard to be self-sufficient without it. Just do as they did during the Great Depression and don’t waste it!

6. Respect Food – Here’s a challenge for you…go one month without throwing ANY food away. Wasting food is the luxury of a lazy, entitled society, and is certainly something that one couldn’t afford during the Great Depression.

Take steps to move toward cooking from scratch and become your own food source to the extent possible. If you live in an apartment or in a small parcel, you may still be able to have small livestock (chickens, rabbits) and a small garden. Maximize your space and grow what you can.

Don’t plant anything non-edible until and unless you’re growing enough plants and animals to easily meet your nutritional requirements. The suburban streets are lined with non-edible Bradford pear trees that do nothing but produce white flowers in the spring. A better choice would have been pear trees that produce an actual pear…only in an entitled society do we actually breed the fruit out of the tree!

If you have some land then you have plenty of options. Raise larger livestock, but not what your neighbor is raising so you can trade (see #4). Have a large (year-round) garden and preserve your own food.

Regardless of whether you live in the city or on a farm you can learn to identify wild edibles at various times throughout year.  You too can practice these skills wherever you are. Ever seen a dandelion growing? Yep, it’s food. If you’re interested in a field guide to get you started with wild edible plants, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Also, you can hunt on your land or in a wildlife management area. If you don’t know how to hunt, have a friend or neighbor take you (again, see #4).  While you’re at it learn to fish and trap animals.

Make every effort to avoid convenience foods. If you’re a parent place close attention to what you are teaching your children about food as a result of your habits. Do you throw food out? Do you cook and dine as a family, or do you eat fast/convenience foods on the go? What lessons will they take into adulthood?

If you have leftovers then take them to work for lunch. Just ignore the stares from coworkers if it bothers you. Learn to make your own cheese, your own beer, your own wine, grind your own wheat and bake your own bread. You don’t have to do this all the time…it’s perfectly fine to buy some items if you have the money and want to save time. The point is to have the skill to do all these things and to practice them. Only then can you live a self-sufficient lifestyle.

7. Be Your Own Doctor – We view health and doctors differently today than our ancestors did 100 years ago. Back then, they took responsibility for their health (as they did with most aspects of their lives). Today, get a sniffle and go grab a pill…or a prescription. Being able to afford a visit to the doctor was an extreme luxury for most people in the 1930s and before, so they knew how to take care of themselves.

You can do the same thing today. Of course, it starts with (sorry) getting and staying fit. If you have a gut, lose it. Cost? Zilch, once again, and you’ll both feel better and be healthier.

Don’t waste money on fancy exercise equipment. Go for long walks, lift bags of feed, do some yoga and, if you want to pump up that chest, do some push-ups.

Make a concerted effort to eat healthy (real) foods. Since we’re discussing the Great Depression, try to eat only foods they would have recognized in the 1930s. Start by putting a chicken in your own pot and cooking it yourself, preferably one that you harvested or bought from a local, hardworking farmer. Add some fresh (organic) vegetables, bake some biscuits, serve with some ice water or tea, turn off the television and you’re all set for a family dinner. Now, what are you going to talk about?

Likewise, going to the dentist was reserved for real emergencies. Many of you may be too young to remember someone in the family tying one end of a string around a youngin’s tooth and the other to a door knob, then slamming the door to extract the tooth, but I’m not. Do what you can on your own and save the doctors, lawyers and others for when you REALLY need them.

8. Do It Yourself – The good news is that many of us are already somewhat proficient in this area. The bad news is we all pale in comparison to our ancestors. Sure, we can use computers better than they could (obviously), but can we do the other things they could with ease:

  • sewing/knitting,
  • cooking (anything) from scratch,
  • sharpening,
  • fix plumbing,
  • gardening,
  • butchering and meat curing,
  • cheese making,
  • recognizing wild edibles in their area,
  • canning/food preserving,
  • tool making/tool repair,
  • wine and alcohol making,
  • car repair/change oil and car fluids,
  • woodworking,
  • masonry/stone work,
  • carpentry,
  • small engine repair.

These are wonderful skills to have and to teach your children. Today, most people don’t have 80% of these, opting instead to rely on a YouTube video if they need to learn something. But what happens if the grid goes down and YouTube isn’t available? In that case you better have some great physical books on hand to reference, such as the wonderful Encyclopedia of Country Living.

Take an inventory of the skills you have and set a goal to add one or more per year. Then learn, practice and perfect.

9. Reuse. Those who survived the Great Depression became well known for saving and not wasting. Their trash barrels were small and even a family of six may have only produced one small three foot high barrel of trash per week.

Now is the time to develop great habits for repurposing and reusing pretty much everything.

Make a sincere effort to reduce trash yourself. Here’s something that can help you. Pretend that there is no trash collection…no trash dump. Instead, you are entitled to purchase and consume but you are responsible for your own trash. That means reusing or burning your own trash. It means eating all your food and composting as needed.

Here are some more tips:

  • before you purchase something think of how you can reuse the packaging,
  • donate clothes to Goodwill,
  • shop at Goodwill if you have to shop…just don’t repurchase the clothing you donated :-),
  • or, if you are close to neighbors and family, hand down clothes (and accept hand downs),
  • save bacon grease,
  • cut old towels into washcloths,
  • cut bread bags in half to make sandwich wraps,
  • plan meals so that there are either no leftovers or leftovers are planned for lunch,
  • or use leftovers to make soup/stew
  • keep the elastics, buttons, etc.

If you throw something away, you probably made a bad (wasteful) purchase. The old saying still applies today: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

10. Minimalize – One of the more popular book categories on Amazon in recent years has been books about minimalizing. Think about it…what do you really need anyway?

This flies smack in the face of normal capitalistic thinking, of course, but the aim is to be self-sufficient and not to buy everything that’s advertised. It makes sense that if you need very little then it will be easier to maintain that lifestyle than if you need a lot.

As I wrote in my first book, The Accidental Farmers (now on Audible), we transitioned from a lifestyle of consumption, where we bought most of what we wanted, to our current lifestyle of production, where we produce most of what we need.

In addition to becoming far more self-reliant, that change in perspective brought an added benefit; it costs far less to enjoy our minimal-stress lifestyle today than it did our high-stress lifestyle then.

We still have a long ways to go to achieve the minimalistic standard of living we aspire towards, but we have been working hard to get there. Perhaps you can embrace a similar philosophy?

We’re all in different situations. Still, each of us can embrace these 10 rules to some degree, and if you can follow them, you’ll enjoy a self-sufficient lifestyle if times get tough, or even if they don’t.